From the start, Ng seems eager to indict the “Pleasantville”-esque facade of her chosen milieu, the affluent suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Ng herself came of age in the ’90s. Ng has said of her beloved hometown that it’s a place where “you are not to show anyone your messy side, ever” — what an irresistible setting, then, to create some chaos and spark some fires.
Ng gives us Elena as Shaker Heights’ human embodiment. The town, like Elena, is a product of meticulous planning, ready at all times to boast its progressive ideals and deeply held belief, set by the Shakers who founded the suburb in 1912, that “order . . . was the key to harmony.” Elena was raised by Shaker-bred parents who “had brought her up to do good” and had “attended local fundraisers, once winning a three-foot-tall stuffed bear at the rotary club’s silent auction.” Just as Elena’s parents allowed themselves to believe they might spark cultural change through silent auctions, Elena charitably rents her investment-property duplex at below-market price to “people she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life” — like her new tenants, the enigmatic artist Mia and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl.
When we meet Elena’s own close-in-age kids, they’re high-schoolers, neatly packaged products of their affluent upbringing. As the family’s expansive house burns down early in the novel, eldest Lexie, awash in privilege, shrugs that they’ll “get a hotel room” for a while. Next-oldest Trip is concerned with little more than pickup basketball and the girls who flock to him unprompted. Even sensitive, deep thinker Moody has never had to do his deep thinking “about money . . . lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap.” But then there’s Izzy — uncomplacent, ill at ease, thinking deeply about plenty of things other than herself. She’s a torment, naturally, to her mother — not least of all because, once, Elena had longed to fight injustice, and here was Izzy, who never bothered longing to; she just did, with the suspension-earning outbursts to prove it.
As Elena’s tenant, Pearl involves herself with the Richardson kids, befriending Lexie and Moody, crushing on Trip — but it’s the mothers in the story who get the most entangled. Elena becomes consumed by Mia, someone who reflected back to her a “dark discomfort . . . that Mrs. Richardson would have much preferred to have kept in its box.” She sets off to dig into Mia’s past, and finds that Pearl (SPOILER ALERT) is the daughter Mia conceived as a surrogate for a wealthy couple, before running away across the country and keeping the baby for herself. Elena is outwardly appalled; yet she knows what it means to feel maternally protective to the point of possessiveness: Her Izzy, iconoclastic troublemaker, was born 11 weeks premature with a “tenacity of will that even the doctors remarked upon” and a host of potential problems that threatened to manifest later in life. Elena “had learned, with Izzy’s birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course. Every time Mrs. Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn’t know how to unclench.” When Izzy runs away at the end to find Mia (whom Elena has kicked out of the duplex), it’s because she wants desperately to be mothered, just not by her own mom. Elena would search for Izzy “for as long as it took, for forever if need be”; and would be bound to Mia in motherhood for just as long.
Then there’s Bebe Chow, Mia’s downtrodden Chinese immigrant co-worker, and Linda McCullough, Elena’s well-to-do childhood friend: another pair forever linked, for whom motherhood is colored by agony. Bebe had struggled to care for her fatherless newborn, and during a psychotic break left her swaddled at a fire station, only for a social worker to place the baby with Linda, who had suffered five miscarriages and wanted to adopt. When a clear-eyed Bebe, tipped off by Mia about her daughter’s whereabouts, sues to get the baby back, Mia throws her support behind Bebe, while Elena fights for Linda (her lawyer husband even takes on the McCullough’s case), as the book asks the same motherhood questions that populate blogs and message boards today — which way is the right way, and what do we lose if we’re wrong?
The teenage characters get just as much real estate in the novel — Izzy, after all, is the one responsible for burning down her family home on Page 1; while Lexie glides in and out of the book’s plotlines just as seamlessly as she strides the halls of Shaker Heights High. Ng writes about them easily and assuredly, filling in scenes from their classrooms and sleepovers with ’90s references that clearly spring from memory: the Delia’s catalog, the smell of CK One, Hacky Sacks, “Scream” masks, pager codes, Jerry Springer. But the teens often seem breezy to the point of paper-thin — and maybe that’s the point, that their selves are as of yet unexamined; everyone except Izzy seems to be inhabiting lives on the surface, their scenes reading like a YA novel. It’s the mothers Ng bothers to flesh out, coloring in their recollections of the most primal parts of parenting. “To a parent,” Ng writes, “your child wasn’t just a person; your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.”
So yes, dear husband, this is a novel about suburban teens, their sexual awakenings and unfettered ideals — and a group of glowy fresh faces have already been cast in the miniseries. But it’s really about moms. If Witherspoon and company play it right, the Hulu show will draw upon the rich layers and intricacies between the grown women in the story: more “Big Little Lies” and less “Pretty Little Liars.” Good thing Witherspoon already has the former on her résumé.
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in new York.